Measuring climate change: it's in the hands of the people of the Far North

Yellowknife's Back Bay in Winter in Canada's Northwest Territories

Yellowknife's Back Bay in Winter in Canada's Northwest Territories

Credit: Getty

In 5 seconds

Geographers at UdeM and Wilfrid Laurier University will train six indigenous community members to maintain instruments measuring greenhouse gas emissions in the NorthWest Territories.

"It’s unbelievable the amount of time and energy we spend maintaining our instruments in the Far North,” exclaimed Professor Oliver Sonnentag of the Department of Geography at Université de Montréal.

"We come from the south to do our research and then we leave, while local communities are directly affected by the climate change we’re witnessing. With the project funded by the Future Skills Centre, we have the opportunity to change the way we do research in these regions. ”

Sonnentag is studying the consequences of global warming and thawing permafrost in the Taiga Plains Ecozone of the Northwest Territories. The region’s soils store vast amounts of carbon. Thawing permafrost could, however, release this carbon and transform it into greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane. This would then create a feedback loop that worsens global warming.

To understand the processes involved and measure the energy and gas exchanges between the Earth’s surface and the atmosphere, Sonnentag’s team installed six micrometeorology towers in the region, partly purchased and operated through multi-institutional infrastructure grants managed by Wilfrid Laurier University.

The instruments on these roughly 15-metre-high towers measure, on a small scale, the absorption and emission of gases by ecosystems. “We can then calculate the difference between the two processes for an ecosystem of a few hundred square metres,” said Sonnentag.

Access complicated by COVID-19

Research sites are in remote areas. For example, the northernmost tower is located near the town of Inuvik, about 100 kilometres from the Beaufort Sea.

Four or five times a year, Sonnentag’s team must travel the country to maintain the solar- and wind-powered instruments. “We go there to make small repairs, calibrate the instruments or download data," he said. "It takes two and a half days to get to Inuvik from Montreal … one way only!”

With the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, his team lost access to the research sites, as entry to the Northwest Territories was restricted to curb the spread of COVID-19. “Our sites are almost abandoned," said Sonnentag. "I told myself that we had to take the opportunity to find a new way to manage this portion of our research program with indigenous communities in the region."

A concrete change

In collaboration with WLU, Sonnentag validated the feasibility of a tailor-made training project with local communities, various organizations and the government of the Northwest Territories.

"There is a lot of talk about co-creation, co-management of the research and the issues of equity, diversity and inclusion," he said. "But how do we actually get there? We can’t justify continually crossing the country if people live very close to our facilities and we can train them."

Today, thanks to funding from the Future Skills Centre, his team is hiring a research professional specializing in micrometeorology based in Yellowknife. This professional will coordinate a team of six indigenous community members from three communities near the research sites.

The six new employees will receive theoretical and practical training to address the effects of climate change and thawing permafrost as well as techniques for maintaining scientific instruments, including the solar panels that power the research sites.

“This funding is timely, because with our usual research grants, we use the funds to go to the sites, but we don’t have the option of training people on the ground," said Sonnentag. "We’ll be able to design the management of the research program with the indigenous communities. This is fundamental."

Why focus on boreal and Arctic regions?

Boreal and Arctic regions store vast amounts of frozen carbon in permafrost. The actual impact on climate change of thawing permafrost in boreal-Arctic regions is not yet known.

It is known, however, that climate warming in boreal and Arctic regions is happening about twice as fast as the global average. It is also known that the greenhouse gases potentially released as a result of permafrost thaw have not been taken into account by most global climate models.

Professor Oliver Sonnentag’s research team is involved in several national and international projects, including NASA’s Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment, the PermafrostNet and Global Water Futures. These networks aim to assess the effects of climate change on circumpolar regions.